Hari Kunzru

No Direction Home

Novelist Hari Kunzru considers the place of the expat in the age of Brexit, Bake Off and Trump

New York is not one of America's English places. All sorts of English people have passed through the city, and many of them have played a part in making it what it is: the New York legend has a place for Sid Vicious waking up on the bathroom floor of the Chelsea Hotel, just as it does for the city's first mayor, Thomas Willett, born in Hertfordshire in 1605. But despite spending just over a century as a colony of the British crown, it's not a place that was ever wholly defined by the English or by Englishness.

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It's not a would-be religious utopia like Massachusetts, started by Puritans who were disproportionately from East Anglia. It's not like Virginia or Carolina, named for distant monarchs and settled by Royalist refugees, the losers of the English Civil War. It's not like Pennsylvania, named for William Penn, the leader of a Quaker migration from the Midlands. In the Eighties, a racially-minded historian defined New York as "a heavy infusion of middle European and Jewish culture grafted on the old Dutch root". One might add Puerto Rico, Italy, Haiti, the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian and the Mexican state of Puebla to that list.

So what does it mean to try to fit yourself into the shopworn tweeds of "an Englishman in New York"? Before the phrase became indelibly associated with Sting, it was the title of a 1979 Kevin Godley and Lol Creme song about going to 42nd Street grindhouse cinemas and eating steaks for breakfast and a bunch of other slightly garbled New York stuff ("Guggenheim attitudes back to back with Jewish baroque"), a paean to a gritty city which has largely disappeared, and must have felt exotic and a bit alarming to Seventies British rockers on tour.

Further back, in 1949, it was the title of a slim book of travel sketches by Francis Marshall, a Vogue illustrator, full of sophisticated Manhattan experiences like drinking cocktails at the Stork Club and dining at Hamburger Heaven. The previous year, Cecil Beaton, writing Portrait of New York, informed his readers that "although before the war 78,000 Englishmen lived in New York, an unknown or untitled Englishman still warrants a greater interest than any other stranger". Earlier still, it was the title of a 1911 book by someone writing under the pseudonym "Juvenal", but it seems to have already been a cliché long before that, the Englishman turning up as a stock character in various 19th century travelogues — with the tea, but without the skyscrapers to gawp up at.

There must have been a time when Englishmen were not welcome. During the Revolutionary War, the British kept prisoners of war in terrible conditions on ships moored in the East River. An estimated 11,500 died, more than in all the war's battles, and for years their bones were left to rot in the mud of the riverbank, before they ended up in a crypt under a hill in my local Brooklyn park. But sooner or later forgiveness or forgetfulness overtook the memory of war crimes, and the stereotypical Englishman-in-NYC was born, walking about observing things, interested but uninvolved, enjoying his own status as an exotic in an exotic milieu.

As a European making his way in the great city of the New World, this man could just as easily be a Dutchman or a German. Scrape a little and Dutch traces are everywhere. Broadway is really brede weg, a drover's path that led up to land owned by a family called Bronck. The Bowery is de bouwerij, old Dutch for "farm". As for the Germans, well, everyone now knows the story of the permatanned grandson of Friedrich Drumpf of Kallstadt in the kingdom of Bavaria.

The clue to the enduringness of the "special relationship" between Blighty and Gotham is in Beaton's blithe assurance that he is more interesting than other foreigners. Why would that be? Poshness, of course: the great ATM of English cultural capital, the very rock on which UK plc is founded. In the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton, we find the mutual attraction of cash-strapped English toffs and wealthy Manhattan heiresses — the so-called Buccaneers. The girl gets to be a duchess, the chap gets to stop the rain dripping through the ballroom ceiling.

The Sting song, of course, is about the great gay eccentric Quentin Crisp, bravely uncloseted long before legalisation, who famously described himself as "one of the stately homos of England". Crisp, who decamped (that would be the word) from London to the East Village in 1977, made himself a celebrity in his adopted city, partly by a punishing dining schedule; he would accept an invitation to dinner from almost anyone who asked. In return for picking up the bill, the host would receive a banquet of finely-honed anecdotes.

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As Crisp knew very well — and perhaps Sid Vicious, too, in his way — New York enjoys it when you perform your British identity. You don't have to be posh. There are various off-the-peg roles. The Shoreditch Bad Boy of Art (also available in Manchester or Glasgow editions), the fishwife chanteuse, David Bowie. In a town full of self-described producers and promoters and presenters and scouts and curators and stylists and entrepreneurs and investors and collectors and bullshitters of every stripe, a man can be whatever kind of "Brit" he likes, but if he has walking-around money and can do a passable Tom Hiddleston, or at least say "gosh" and look self-deprecating while wearing a pair of battered brown brogues, he will never find himself too far from a room with attractive singles and an open bar.

"I met Donald Trump once. Back then, the idea that he would be chosen to lead the country was still a Simpsons plot line. Now the joke's on me"

Almost 10 years ago,I left London and came to the city, a common journey for writers from all over the world. There is an ecology in New York of universities and foundations and reading series and book stores that allows all sorts of literary types to hustle a living, from hermetic poets to swaggering writers of military thrillers. When I first arrived, I couldn't tell whether I was facing Uptown or Downtown. I was menaced by bedbugs and the weird black mould that grew in my bathroom. I'd get lost in my reading and ignore incomprehensible subway announcers, only to discover that my local train was now running express somewhere in Queens and it would be another three chapters before I could get back to the small patch of Manhattan I knew. I was up for being disorientated. In a way, it was why I'd come. I hadn't expected so many small troubles with words.

If you're a writer, language is your instrument, and crossing the Atlantic messes with it. It wasn't just "tomayto, tomahto". Try going into a Manhattan hardware store and asking for a "bath plug" instead of a "stopper". You're immediately into weird sexual territory at the front of a line of men who have to be back on a building site in 10 minutes.

And for every time someone says, "I love your accent", it is written that an equal and opposite miscomprehension shall occur. "Tiny Island?" Coney Island. "Where is Tiny Island?" I said Coney. Can I have some water, please? "I'm sorry, sir. I don't understand." Nor do I. I'm asking for water, in a restaurant. That shouldn't be too hard. Water. "Worter? Oh! Wahdah." It feels affected to put on an accent for just one word in a sentence but you get beaten down. I have to say "wahdah" because otherwise I'd be thirsty. Wahdah, and a big round "o" for "Coe–knee Eye-land", beating back my nasal Essex "ao".

I could go on. I have trouble with the letter "r". When I spell my surname for people on the phone, they hear "i". I once went to a party where the entertainment was getting me to say "breakfast burrito", with my English "t". BurriTo. I try to hold fast, to stop the colonials from overrunning the redcoat lines, but in certain small linguistic ways I'm slipping. I say "hood" instead of "bonnet" when I talk about cars, because now "bonnet" rings in my ear like something out of Jane Austen. It never used to.

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I pick up checks not bills, spell "meager" like "eager" and recently caught myself referring to the London "metro", which is wrong on so many levels and actually very disconcerting to me, as I grew up on the Central Line and worry that not being able to find the words "underground" or "tube" in my brain could be symptomatic of some kind of serious mental unmooring. I think in Fahrenheit, but only for warm temperatures, and will never stop believing that in the 21st century, no serious person should be expected to measure anything in eighths-of-an-inch.

Sometimes I forget and speak American when I'm back in London. Then I'm reminded that there's nothing a British person finds more contemptible than another British person putting on airs. Speaking American is putting on airs. It's pretending to be something you're not, which is to say off the telly, and that is ridiculous because you're clearly not off the telly, you're here outside a pub speaking American, and even though you're doing the most patriotically British thing in the world, which is helping the groom throw up during the messy latter stages of a stag night, you're obviously a wanker, because when one of the women smoking cigarettes at the bus stop asks if your mate's all right, you say, "Yeah, he'll be fine, I'll get him home, it's only a couple of blocks." You could have said "couple blocks" which would have really been speaking American, but even though you said "of" you still said "blocks" and thus clearly believe you are Al Pacino and ought to be mocked the length of the Hackney Road.

So, you stumble to the groom's house, allowing him to hang on to you, feeling that you have been away too long and have tumbled into a well of transatlantic wankerdom whose walls are too slimy to scale, and to cap it all, with your strange vowels and "t"s that sound like "d"s, people don't believe you're from here and keep asking if you're Australian. Even Australians.

Which brings me to the question of belonging, and again, to that tangerine grandson of Bavaria, the city's most insecure rich person, the 45th President of the United States. On election night in 2008, I was up in Harlem when Barack Obama declared victory, and I couldn't swear to you that the intersection of 125th St and Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd didn't levitate. Since the 2016 election, the atmosphere has been deeply pessimistic. Even those who supported the Republican candidate, and there were many in New York, seemed to be made more agitated than happy by victory. Non-white friends started to report a trickle of unpleasant incidents. Cars driving past, shoulders jostled, cat calls. "Trump that, bitch! This isn't your country any more!" The atmosphere was ugly, punchy.

"I intended to be in New York nine months, but it turned into a year, then three years, then five. At a certain point, you have to start asking yourself if your move is permanent"

I intended to be in New York nine months, but it turned into a year, then three years, then five. At a certain point, you have to start asking yourself whether your move is permanent. You have to start asking if you have to stay and deal with this guy. When I arrived, the financial crisis had just hit. New York's economy, for good or ill, depends on Wall Street, on the money that trickles off the trading screens and into the city's shops. A chill wind blew through every hairdresser and restaurant and clothes store and gym, a pall which took a few years to dissipate.

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I went to Ground Zero on the night Osama Bin Laden was killed, watching frat boys spray a cheering crowd with Champagne, while other people stood silently with candles, remembering those who'd died. I marched for Occupy and Black Lives Matter. I cycled over the bridge to bring bottled water to friends in the "powerless zone" of Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy. Which is to say that I participated, or experienced, or just hung about on the fringes of some of the more significant events of the city's recent history and missed others back home, which must have felt equally important. Cameron, the Olympics. The inexplicable cultural phenomenon which is Bake Off.

For a while I came to enjoy the wrong-end-of-the-telescope quality of my New York identity. Because of the British preoccupation with preventing other British people from putting on airs, we are experts in dissecting the minutiae of class, race and region. We judge each other's accents, the way we dress, the cleanliness of our net curtains. If anything, it's worse in New York, where the old money signifies itself through predictable codes: private school and Ivy League and Long Island summer house and law firm and fraternity. But I have no dog in most of New York's social fights and I like being less readable than at home. People can't necessarily tell where I'm from or where I went to school, which I've found a relief, like putting down a burden I wasn't aware of carrying.

I have brown skin, but people are often very vague about ethnic identity here, because who has the time for a whole story and sometimes the music is loud or you just don't feel like getting into conversation, and so I have an alter ego who goes by the uncorrected Israeli name Ari, as well as Ali, who gets called brother by the Yemeni bodega clerk but should never get into a cab wearing a kaffiyeh or really any kind of patterned scarf if he doesn't want to talk about who did 9/11.

Serious changes have also taken place in my life, changes which have gradually made the pose of lightly-amused "Englishman in New York" impossible to sustain. I got married in front of a judge in a courtroom of the New York County Criminal Court in Lower Manhattan. My children were born in a hospital on the fringes of the Financial District. I am a parent, a payer of crippling health insurance premiums, a guy who pushes a stroller through a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. My free-floating years are behind me. And now I have to wonder if I have the stomach for what's about to come.

New York has always been a hard city, a viciously unequal city. These days I live along the line of the C train, which heads into Manhattan in one direction and out into Brownsville and East New York on the other. At its wealthiest, at Chambers Street, the median income is over $200,000 a year. At its poorest, at Van Siclen Avenue, some way out towards JFK airport, it's less than $18,000. Trump is a creature of this city, one might say the quintessential creature of this city, the kind of beast one meets on high floors in Midtown, men who have fattened themselves on arbitrage or property or private equity, who are comfortable with extreme inequality, and who believe it is their right to decide the fates of others.

I met him once, when I tagged along with a film crew who were shooting a lottery commercial at Trump Tower. I hung about, checking out Plexiglas models of Trump-branded building projects as the future head of state ran his lines. "How would you like to live like me for a day? How would YOU like to live?" "Which do you like? The second one, right? Is my tie OK?" He seemed not fully present, a creature of surface without detectable inner life. Back then, the idea that he would be chosen to lead the country was still a Simpsons plot line. Now the joke's on me.

The obvious thing would be for me to head home. But the UK's future is as uncertain as America's, and besides, the London I used to know is no longer there. I don't mean that in any particularly dramatic way, though plenty of places I knew have changed or closed or are no longer occupied by my friends.

At the beginning of western thought, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus wrote, "you cannot step twice into the same river". The river may be the same but the water has flowed on. In Japan, in the 12th century, the Buddhist priest Kamo no Chōmei used the same image of the river and made the conclusion explicit, "so it is with man, and all his dwelling places, here on Earth".

I left London. When I go back these days, there are eddies and currents I don't recognise. If I move back, I know I'll have to make a new place to dwell, because I wouldn't get the old one back. And I'll lose New York, or the version of it I've come to love.

I know I'm not alone in my dilemma. I attended a party at the home of the French cultural attaché, and the talk was about which country was more unstable, America or France. Like everyone I know, I read the news obsessively, checking many times a day for developments, trying to divine what the world will be like a few months into the future. The plutocrats, the people on whose behalf the social fabric is being wrecked, are digging bunkers and buying land in New Zealand. If helter skelter goes down, they'll be helicoptered out. The rest of us, whether we drink coffee or tea, however we pronounce our vowels, are going to have to find a new kind of community, and a new resilience in the face of what is about to come.